When Is Black “Black?”

She needs to quit.”

That’s how the discussion got kicked off on One Drop Rule’s message board July 2nd. The person accused of needing to cease and desist was CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien who spent the past year working on a documentary for the cable news network entitled “Black In America” which airs this week. And the quitting in question was in regards to her black status.

“I have watched her with (African Americans) before and never once did she refer to (African Americans) in the first person, as in ‘I’ or ‘We’, or ‘we as a people’, etc. Maybe that’s just a journalism thing. But Tim Russert did identify as a Catholic when the Pope died, so?” wrote one commenter.

“Also, I have read at least one article … that says, rather Soledad says, that while her mother raised her/siblings to be just (African Americans), she sees herself as being bi-racial or mixed race. Now, she could just be saying that because she’s doing this show. Maybe on St. Paddy’s day, she said she was Irish.”

This attitude was sprinkled throughout many of the comments. At one point a few seemed to get an interview O’Brien gave to MyUrbanReport confused where she talked about her own upbringing as “black” and the story of a mixed couple she interviewed for the documentary who differed on whether to raise the children as biracial or black.

“Here you have a kid to me who is completely biracial,” O’Brien said in the interview. “They’re little children, but their dad doesn’t necessarily see that (they’re black.) … My mom and dad were like you’re black. That was just the way it was. The way they were very clear about it made me clear about it in my head.”

O’Brien has repeatedly in the past given accounts of her life as a black Latina. In a profile with the Irish Echo Online, she talks about her identity (her mother is Afro-Cuban and her father is Australian-Irish) and the struggles her parents went through as a mixed race couple back when it was still illegal in some places and some restaurants wouldn’t serve them.

O’Brien tends to treat her own ethnic mix with a light touch. She said that people laugh when they see her without makeup “because I have so many freckles that I look very Irish.” She also gently mocked the notion that her mixed-race background exposed her to unimaginable horrors.

“I have had people say, like, ‘Oh, so you were a tragic mulatto?’ Well, um, not exactly. I was just a middle-class girl growing up on Long Island.”

It isn’t possible, she contended, “to over-dramatize” what (her parents) went through … “They were doing stuff that for the time was very risky – socially risky and risky to their own physical safety. And they decided they were going to go ahead and get married and have six kids,” their daughter recalled.

While the board eventually clears up the confusion over what O’Brien said versus what the couple she interviewed said, there seemed to be a prevailing hostility towards the reporter for her alleged flip-flopping on her “black status.”

I’ve heard this on more than one occasion, but haven’t seen much from O’Brien to back this belief up considering she routinely plays up her black heritage over her Irish roots. After awhile I started to wonder if this hostility was over the fact that she was white enough to pass, but still ensconced herself in black issues and news stories (she’s a member of the National Association of Black Journalists). Were their “lying eyes” keeping them from recognizing her as a woman of color? Especially with her straight hair and nondescript accent, standard for any TV journalist?

Or was it because the belief that she was switching sides rang true in the subconscious of many blacks. That the though of her being a racial opportunist, trading places when convenient was too good and malicious a story to pass for those grappling with their own degrees of racial self-loathing and schadenfreude.

After decades of the “one drop rule,” where blackness was based on the slightest amount of African heritage, it seemed odd to argue over a woman who openly embraces both sides of her family and talks candidly about being raised black, but also being biracial. It seemed odd to determine that this was some form of betrayal if she used the term multi-ethnic in reference to herself when she is, in fact, multi-ethnic.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama describes himself as a black man of mixed heritage and no one questions it, but Soledad O’Brien does it and it’s somehow contradictory. I have come to believe this is only because she looks white enough to pass and is married to a white man. These signifiers are used to strip her of her right to call herself a person of color. They are a way to reject her for having the gall to be born not looking black in an age where half-black people who don’t look black often choose to declare themselves otherwise.

The whole debate over O’Brien (and the misdirected, but true frustration over a black mother with white looking children who saw them, and felt the world saw them, as black) made me wonder if the rules had changed for some people. Was black really black anymore? In St. Louis we have a city license collector who looks as white as any white man, but possesses a southern drawl and a demeanor that is everything of a black man. Is that O’Brien’s crime? She doesn’t ooze blackness? Because I’m black, visibly black, and I don’t “ooze” blackness. But my race is not questioned because of that high visibility.

Is the problem that O’Brien isn’t seen as a “real” black woman? That she couldn’t have had endured a “real” black woman struggle because she is so light? Is this another variation of the “spectrum” warfare, the colorism that happens amongst black people? In a form of pre-rejection, where some blacks withholding their embrace of O’Brien because some lighter blacks rejected the darker in the past and present? To even the field a reversal must take place?

And if your mother is “black” as O’Brien considers herself, what are her children, who are blond haired and blue-eyed? Where does this fit when historically all it took was one Afro-Cuban grandmother to make you black? Does the rule no longer apply? Are their different rules for those who can “pass” and who can’t? And is that rule based on how black you look, if you can pass and if you are perceived as benefiting from your “whiteness?”

And how much of this is about ego — hers and ours? When a black person who could pass choses “us” I tend to look favorably on them. But is their endorsement an old lie based on outdated and outmoded beliefs? Can you be something other than black in America when you no longer look black in America?

I had a Great Great Aunt Josephine, and she, like many members of my father’s mother’s family were light enough to pass for white. Yet my great great aunt and her sisters and her nieces were vehement about their blackness. They would curse you out in an instant if you doubted who and what they were. They married the blackest men they could find. As did my father’s mother, explaining why the light-bright-and-almost-white lineage ended with him and his brothers.

Yet at the same time, when it benefited them, they didn’t exactly correct white people. My father is fond of telling a story where his Aunt Dinky, the only dark one out of his mother’s sisters, drove my father and his brothers to Kansas to see their great-grandmother who was in the hospital and dying. Aunt Dinky told the taxi driver what house to take her to and the cabbie said no colored people lived in that neighborhood, but she insisted he take her anyway. Then when she told him what hospital to take her to, he said no colored people went to that hospital, she still insisted that was the right place to go.

Once inside the woman at the front desk repeated the same tired song. There were no colored people at this hospital, but Aunt Dinky looked down the hall and there was Aunt Josephine and her sisters. She told the attendant she saw her family and kept going. When Aunt Dinky told her aunts that they had the folks in the hospital thinking they were white, Aunt Josephine shot her down. Why would they think that, she said while her mother lied sick in a bed, whiter than any white woman.

My Aunt Josephine would fight you if you told her she looked white. But she knew she did and she embraced blackness anyway. There were pluses to being that light, but she still dealt with racism and the wary looks of blacks who doubted her. What about today?

Can Soledad O’Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not “sounding” black and not being married to a black man? Can she embrace it with blond, blue-eyed children? Have the rules of blackness changed, or are we still playing the same psychological mind games we’ve always played when it has come to race in America?

I often say in America you are what you look like? But if you look white but call yourself black, what are you?

60 thoughts on “When Is Black “Black?”

  1. Did we forget Dr. King’s vision of being judge by the content of our character and not the color of our skin? We can be our own worse enemy in this thing called racism.

  2. Black Snob,I recently discovered your blog and it is just wonderful! Your post about Soledad is so balanced and insightful… and popular with 52 comments! May I suggest you contact Latoya Peterson and cross post on her blog “Racialicious.” They will love it!Good Luck,

  3. Mariah Carey has a song entitled “Outside”. In the song she reveals the “feeling of being somewhere in between” and feelings of not really being accepted by any race. Yes lighter skinned people may seem less threatning to mainstream america and therefore “have it easy”, but many people forget the feelings of loneliness one may have to endure. It’s a beautiful song…written in a time when people cared about poetic lyrics. I’m sure anyone who reads at this day and age can appreciate it.It’s hard to explainInherently it’s just always been strangeNeither here nor thereAlways somewhat out of place everywhereAmbiguousWithout a sense of belonging to touchSomewhere halfwayFeeling there’s no one completely the sameChorusStanding aloneEager to justBelieve it’s good enough to be whatYou really areBut in your heartUncertainty forever liesAnd you’ll always beSomewhere on theOutsideVerseEarly on, you faceThe realization you don’thave a spaceWhere you fit inAnd recognize youWere born to existChorusStanding aloneEager to justBelieve it’s good enough to be whatYou really areBut in your heartUncertainty forever liesAnd you’ll always beSomewhere on theOutsideAnd it’s hardAnd it’s hardAnd it’s hardBridgeIrreversiblyFalling in betweenAnd it’s hardAnd it’s hardTo be understoodAs you areAs you areOh, and God knowsThat you’re standing on your ownBlind and unguidedInto a world dividedYou’re thrownWhere you’re never quite the sameAlthough you try-try and tryTo tell yourselfYou really areBut in your heart-uncertainty forever liesAnd you’ll always beSomewhere on the outside

  4. It saddens me that I don’t think this conversation will ever go away. I’m black, but of obvious “otherness” and have always answered “black” when people have asked about my ethnicity only to hear: ” . . .And what else? You’re obviously mixed with something else!” No one believes I’m just black. So then I started naming everything else that I was when people asked me. And then . . .”You’re just black!” I get accused of “denying” my blackness or thinking I’m something that I’m not.Give me a fucking break. I am human. Why do we feel the need to categorize people? Why is it so important to us? Who cares what Soledad considers herself? So what if she considers herself black,biracial Chinese or Alien? How does that personally affect YOU? Socially and historically, I get what race means in America. However, if I’m not mistaken, there’s always “other” when you fill out that box on applications. There’s always the ability to pick more than one box, even. So what if ANDERSON COOPER was moderating this Black in America thing on CNN. SO WHAT?!I cannot take all of this anymore. I’m proud of being black, but I don’t know why we’re still so obsessed with skin color, hair texture, dialect and all that other nonsense to define something that is, essentially, an illusion.Let’s get that slave mentality out of our heads.I understand racism and culture, as I’m not that naive, so I’m not saying race doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, let’s not be so judgmental within out own group and expand our minds a little bit.That being said, awesome blog entry. Everyone seems really intelligent and I like that. Love this blog.

  5. Danielle, I hope you don’t mind my calling you Danielle. Snob is great for your wonderful cartoons, but kind of off putting for a person. I’d like to share with your readers a story which was reviewed in last Sunday’s NY Times Book review, COME ON SHORE AND WE WILL KILL AND EAT YOU ALL by Christine Thompson.Christine a white woman PHd, who studied in Australia, married a Maori man, who coincidentally has the same nick name a I do – SEVEN.He is about a foot taller then Christine, and reminds me of Clarence Williams III, the Black guy from the THE MOD SQUAD, a TV show, from the 1970’s which also starred Peggy Lipton. (Peggy Lipton happens to bethe mother RASHIDA JONES, who stars in the TV shows Boston Public and The Office.)You can see what I mean here:http://www.comeonshore.com/qanda.php Besides an interview with Ms./Dr. Thompson, you’ll find pictures of their beautiful family! I think she has two or three children.Enjoy,

  6. I think where your black comes from plays a part. We bi-racial people who accend from American slavery and parents who lived by Jim Crow rules, have a taint the Afro-Cuban doesn’t have. American blacks, bi-racial or not, have a direct connection. O’Brian doesn’t and shouldn’t, she can be more casually black. I know some black people from the DR, ask them what they are and they will tell you dominican. they won’t say black and certainly won’t say AA

  7. That was such a good posting! I have been shocked about the horrible backlash Soledad has received. She has been a vehement champion of black people and I applaud her recent work. As well, I accept her blackness with no qualms. She is who she is and her parents are who they are, nothing can change it. People need to come to grips with our changing society. Lines are being blurred and everything can not be labeled and put in a box.

  8. It’s good to have these discussions. First and foremost, the concept of race itself is RACIST. Colorism is strongist in countries throughout the world where colonialism and slavery once existed. It is so sad that some of us are questioned about our “blackness” because our skin is fairer, the texture of our hair is straighter, our features are narrow. The beauty of our race is the variety.In West Indian and South American communities people of mixed races and other races are still embraced as Jamaicans, Trinis and Brazilians regardless of appearance because it’s about the CULTURE. We as African Americans should be the same way.

  9. I don’t have an issue with Mrs. Obrien because of how she ‘looks’ or because of which ‘side’ she identifies with it’s about playing games and being patronizing which that ‘special’ was. And the fact that she works for CNN which is verrrrry racist and biased in stories it does about black people just like her predecessor NBC. You can’t have it both ways if she realllly wants to go there she would also be attacking her bosses and some of THEIR practices but I doubt it.

  10. “I am a Black American young woman with two parents that are clearly black, … I am proud to be black and look black. I think people with a little bit of black are closer to black than not but they are not black. I think we as black people need to stop running to embrace folks that aren’t really one of us and embrace are own black folks that look black.”To the “young woman” :You must be very young, as in: 12?because otherwise you’d know it’s kind of silly to boast about your race (did you choose your genes before birth?) or your alleged youngness (did you choose your age?)This talk of embracing people who look most like us, it’s SO old hat. When are people going to think less me, me, me.

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